A government review of how journalists, attorneys, immigration advocates, and activists were monitored and tracked by U.S. border agencies confirms the Mexican government had a major role in the controversial tracking program.
In a letter dated May 9, 2019, Randy Howe, Executive Director of Field Operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) notes that “...CBP partnered with the Government of Mexico [to] address developing threats…” posed by the Central American Migrant caravan.
“A number of journalists and photographers were identified by Mexican Federal Police as possibly assisting migrants in crossing the border illegally and/or as having some level of participation in the violent incursion events,” CBP’s letter states.
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That information contradicts initial statements by top Mexican officials, including President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who said their government was not involved in the controversial surveillance effort.
On March 7, 2019, the day after NBC 7 Investigates broke the database story, Mexico’s foreign secretary pledged to ask the U.S. government, via official channels, to “clarify any possible cases of illegal spying.”
“The government of Mexico disapproves of all acts of illegal espionage against any person, domestic or foreign. The Mexican government does not conduct illegal surveillance on anyone, for any type or category of activity,” a statement read.
News of the letter and the completion of CBP's review into the controversial surveillance program was first reported by The Intercept.
NBC 7 Investigates revealed the existence of the surveillance database after obtaining leaked screenshots of individual entries from a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) source. The leaked documents included dossiers compiled on some of the individuals in the database, including an immigration attorney.
The database was used by border agents to track and store information on 59 individuals, including journalists, attorneys, and immigration advocates, tied to a migrant caravan that arrived in Tijuana, Mexico late last year.
On May 1, the Center for Democracy and Technology, along with 100 civil rights organizations, sent a letter to the DHS’ Acting Secretary voicing opposition to the data collection and urging the department to stop targeting activists, journalists, and lawyers for exercising speech and associational activities protected by the First Amendment.
In its May 9 response, CBP said it had completed its internal review of the “targeting of reporters, attorney, and advocates at the Southwest Border.”
To read the letter, click here.
CBP said its surveillance operation started in October 2018, when “the threat level of the Central American migrant caravan in Mexico reached higher than normal levels (and) demonstrated violent tendencies.”
According to CBP’s letter, “...varied sources of information helped identify a number of people involved in assisting migrants in crossing the border illegally or having witnessed the violent actions taken against law enforcement at the border.”
Some of the journalists, attorneys, and advocates included in the database told NBC 7 Investigates they were not present for any acts of violence against border agents and were not asked about border violence when questioned by agents in secondary inspections.
Ariana Drehsler, a U.S. photojournalist included in the database, previously told NBC 7 she was pulled into secondary inspections three times and asked questions about who she saw and photographed in Tijuana shelters. Kitra Cahana, another U.S. photojournalist said she spent 13 hours detained by Mexican authorities when she tried to cross the border into Mexico City. Eventually, she was denied entry into Mexico and sent back to the U.S.
CBP’s letter notes that “Efforts to gather this type of information is a standard law enforcement practice. CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting.”
But the agency also acknowledged criticism of its surveillance program.
“CBP may inconvenience law-abiding persons in our efforts to detect, deter, and mitigate threats to our homeland,” the agency explained. “We rely on the patience, cooperation, and understanding of travelers to ensure effective protection of our borders.”
Gregory Nojeim, senior legal counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, said CBP's response heightens his organization's concerns about the surveillance effort.
Nojeim told NBC 7 Investigates the letter confirms his suspicion that CBP has abused its authority by investigating the "legitimate activities of journalists, lawyers, and activists.
"It can't be a crime to advise an asylum seeker how to seek asylum, or to cover their plight," Nojeim said. "That can't be a crime."
Nojeim is also critical of Mexico's involvement in the surveillance effort. "When our government teams with another government to violate the rights of U.S. citizens, our concerns are magnified, exponentially," Nojeim said.
He said Mexico and the U.S. should not "work together to deprive people of their rights (or) to investigate people who are merely associating with non- citizens."
Want to learn more about how the NBC 7 Investigates team reported this story? Listen to INSIGHT: Episode One below.